Fourth of July is almost upon us. This week and all summer long, we head to pools, to lakes, to any body of water we can get into with our families to cool off from the heat.
But a fun day in the water can turn tragic in a few minutes time.
Tina Van Winkle learned firsthand how quickly a child can become submerged in water June 9 while swimming with her son Teddy, 3, her baby Roger and her father at a neighborhood pool in the Wells Branch area. It was a quiet Saturday morning with two lifeguards in their stations and more in the office and about 15 people in the pool, Van Winkle says.
The Van Winkles had been swimming, and Teddy had asked to take off his Puddle Jumper flotation device so he could practice floating. Then, when they were all getting out of the pool, her father was carrying the baby and she thought he also had Teddy as well. She swam to the pool ladder to get out of the pool to follow her dad back to the picnic table.
“I had visually registered that Teddy was with my dad,” she says. She had even seen him out of the water and on the pavement next to the pool, following her dad back to their picnic table. “My dad thought I was bringing up the rear … it was a misunderstanding.”
Teddy had seen their beach ball floating in the pool and jumped in to grab it. When Van Winkle saw that Teddy wasn’t with her dad, she scanned the pool and saw him floating with just his arms above water in the shallow end, which was about 3 feet. She jumped in and pulled him out. The lifeguards had not registered yet what had happened, she says.
Teddy was limp, but hadn’t lost consciousness and he immediately started spitting out water. They walked home, thinking that everything was fine, but Teddy was lethargic and wasn’t himself.
She took him to the St. David’s Children’s Hospital in North Austin, where he stayed overnight for observation because he had fluid in his lungs.
Van Winkle and her father both had years of swimming experience, he as a lifeguard and swim instructor in his youth and she on the swim team in high school. “I know never to take my eyes off of kids,” she says. “And I did.”
“Even though I already knew a lot of the guidelines about water safety, I didn’t follow them to the letter,” she says.
The experience confirmed with her how quickly it could happen — she estimates he was out of her sight maybe two minutes — and the importance of having someone within arms’ length of a child anytime you’re around water, and the importance of verbally confirming who is watching each child. It’s also a reminder for parents and guardians to have strong swimming skills themselves, she says, because she could jump in quickly and pull him out of the pool.
Even though Teddy can talk about that day and how scared he was, it hasn’t stopped him from swimming. He has been back in the pool twice since then and will take swimming lessons next month.
“He was fearless again,” she says. “Maybe that’s a bad thing, because it led him to believe he could swim.”
Dr. Elinor Pisano, the pediatric hospitalist that saw Teddy at St. David’s, says the hospital has seen a spike in the number of drownings or near-drownings in the hospital this May and June.
“We do see a spike every spring and summertime,” she says, but this year the number of deaths seems higher. She could not give specific numbers.
Deaths can happen within five minutes she says and the likelihood of a fatality or severe brain damage goes up with each passing minute, she says.
“The key thing is supervision,” she says. “It’s not that there is a total absence of supervision; it’s a momentary lapse of supervision.”
Often it’s a case like the Van Winkles’, where there are multiple caregivers and someone assumes that someone else is watching the child.
“Someone turns their back for just a minute, and they later realized that child is underwater,” she says.
Make sure that there is a designated adult watching the child and that that adult is within arms’ length. If you’re that adult and you have to step away, confirm with someone else that they are watching the child, Pisano says.
If a child does become submerged, pull them out as quickly as possible, ask someone else to call 9-1-1 and start CPR. Make sure the child is seen by either an emergency medical technician or in the emergency room to confirm that their oxygen level is normal and that there are no lasting effects.
Other things you can do to prevent drownings include making sure you have a four-sided fence around your backyard pool with a locked gate that closes behind you; and giving kids swim lessons beginning at age 1. Pisano says there was some old thinking that it would give kids a sense of bravery that they could swim before they really could, but now there’s some evidence that it does provide some level of protection. She does warn, “There’s no way to drown-proof your child.”
While drowning is most common in children 4 and younger, it also is common in teenage boys and when there is alcohol or substances involved.
It also doesn’t always happen in in-ground pools. Wading pools, above-ground pools, lakes, hot tubs and bathtubs all can be dangerous.
Follow our swim safety tips:
Don’t forget that even if the pool is safe, water can be a very unsafe place. Keep these things in mind when you head to the pool, lake or beach this weekend.
Before you dip your toes into whatever body of water you choose, practice these rules for water safety we compiled using experts from the YMCA, City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department, Colin’s Hope, Safe Kids Austin, the Lower Colorado River Authority and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What does drowning look like?
Unlike what we see in the movies, “drowning is a silent thing. There’s no splashing, yelling or choking,” says Stephanie Hebert, the injury prevention coordinator at Dell Children’s Medical Center and the Safe Kids Austin coordinator. “They go under and when they are under, you don’t hear them, you don’t see anything.”
Drowning also doesn’t take long. Irreversible brain damage happens in as little as four minutes. Children who drown are usually missing for less than five minutes and usually are in the presence of at least one parent.
For children younger than 15, it’s the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related deaths, behind motor vehicle accidents. Children younger than 5 are more at risk. Boys also are more susceptible because they tend to take more risks.
It can happen anywhere. Pools with lifeguards, natural bodies of water, bathtubs and toilets.
As of mid-May this year, 16 children already have drowned in Texas, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
It’s also preventable, so let’s focus on that.
Watch the water
The No. 1 thing parents can do to prevent a child from drowning is supervise their children.
For young children, that means getting in the water and having hands-on contact or being within arm’s length.
For older children, that means watching them in the water at all times. Reading a book in a lounge chair or talking to a fellow parent or texting isn’t supervising.
The Austin-based drowning prevention nonprofit group Colin’s Hope distributes 75,000 water safety packets every year that include a Water Guardian bracelet. The bracelet slips on and signifies that you are the designated adult watching the children in your group. If you need to take a break, you hand it to another adult, whose sole job is watching the water.
The City of Austin ordinance requires that kids 9 and younger have an adult with them to be in a city pool and that kids ages 10 to 14 can be by themselves if they pass a swim test, but why chance it? Supervise everyone in your group.
Vacation is also no time to let your guard down. Kids can drown in cruise ships and hotel pools.
Always have a phone nearby and learn CPR. A water safety class is also a great idea.
Good swimmers drown, too
Even kids who know how to swim can drown, says Alissa Magrum, executive director of Colin’s Hope, which was started by the parents of Colin Holst, a 4-year-old who drowned in an Austin pool in 2008. Colin had had swim lessons and was at a life-guarded pool with his family and friends watching.
“A lot of families think, ‘My kids are decent swimmers; they’ve had swim lessons, they are fine,’ ” Hebert says.
But things happen. Children accidentally swallow water. Or they hit their heads. Or they misjudge their abilities. Or they get tired or dehydrated or hungry.
Donita Grinde-Houtman, the aquatic supervisor for Austin Parks and Recreation, says lifeguards respond most often between 2 and 6 p.m. because kids get tired. “Kiddos have been at the pool all day long, they’re getting tired, and they don’t recognize that they don’t have the energy to swim as far as they need to.”
Take frequent breaks. End earlier than you think you should. Rehydrate and refuel throughout the day.
Not-so-good swimmers need more help
That doesn’t mean water wings, pool noodles and other pool toys to stay afloat. Put a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket on your budding swimmer. They have to have one on for getting in a boat, so why not extend that to any body of water?
Before you go to a pool, define where the shallow end is, especially for not-so-good swimmers. One of the most common reasons lifeguards make a water rescue, says Bret Kiester, the executive director of the Hays Communities YMCA and the aquatic directors liaison for all the Austin-area YMCAs, is when kids who aren’t good swimmers find the deep end. Sometimes they’ve monkey-crawled along the side of the pool to that end; other times they’re following an older sibling or they don’t know where the deep end starts.
Lifeguards are great but not a guarantee
Be hesitant to swim in a place without a lifeguard because they add a layer of protection. However, they’re not insurance.
One lifeguard Magrum was working with put it this way: “We are not baby-sitters. We are here in an emergency.”
Lifeguards have a lot of people to watch, not just your child. Their job gets even more difficult the more people are in the pool and the less-clear the water is. They also get distracted by children horsing around (i.e. running around the pool) and other emergencies not in the pool.
Lifeguards, who go through similar training programs, are supposed to scan 180 degrees every 10 seconds from top to bottom, from right to left. If you see a lifeguard who isn’t doing that or you notice that lifeguards aren’t getting frequent breaks and rotating out, alert a supervisor.
Swim lessons statistically have been shown to reduce a child’s chances of drowning, but it’s not a magic shield.
The YMCA and the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department start swim lessons as parent-and-child classes at age 6 months, old enough for a child to have good head control.
Those early classes are about familiarizing the baby with water and teaching parents good water safety with their children.
By age 3 or 4, children can take solo lessons, but if you’ve missed that age, don’t worry. “It’s never too late to learn how to swim,” Kiester says. He’s had students as old as 92 learn to swim.
Kids are grouped by age, then by ability, and there are adult classes, too — something parents who don’t know how to swim should consider in order to be able to save a child in danger.
Swim lessons are not just about learning strokes. They teach about being comfortable and water safety.
Sometimes kids will have a bad reaction to swimming lessons. It might be the time of day or it might be the coolness of the water, Grinde-Houtman says.
If your child is truly afraid of the water, Grinde-Houtman says, you might have to take a step back and start with something like sitting at the side of the pool and putting her feet in the water.
Free swim lessons are available from the Austin American-Statesman’s Swim Safe program, which provides lessons at YMCA locations and City of Austin pools.
A great time to do swim lessons is in the winter, Kiester says. They tend to be less crowded and when summer starts, kids won’t have to re-learn to be comfortable in the water again.
Natural bodies of water
Rivers, lakes, springs and oceans get tricky. The surface is uneven. “You might be wading in waist-deep water and the next step you’re in 16 feet of water,” says Clara Tuma of the LCRA.
You also can’t see the bottom to know if someone has fallen in.
It’s also hard to judge distances. People often get in trouble because they pick a point to swim to and underestimate how far it is. “They run out of energy halfway there,” Tuma says. “They can’t just stop and sit under a tree.”
Wearing a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket allows them to rest and float if they need to.
And often people get confused as to where they are to report an emergency.
Swimming on natural bodies also means you’re not the only thing out there. Keep a look out for boats and personal water crafts that might not be able to see you.
In oceans, teach kids how to deal with rip currents that push swimmers away from the shore.
Never swim alone no matter what type of water you are in.
Keep safe at home
Each year many kids drown at home. Kids can drown in as little as 1 inch of water.
Never walk away from a young child in a bathtub, not even to answer the phone or grab a towel.
Keep locks on toilets if you have infants and toddlers. Keep plastic kiddie pools empty as well as mop buckets.
If you have a backyard pool, install a locking gate system on all four-sides of the pool. If a child goes missing, check the pool or hot tub first before looking inside the house.
Teach baby-sitters about pool safety.
Don’t forget to wear your sunscreen and bug spray, too.